Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Fifty Random Points: Marilyn Monroe in NIAGRA



Let’s be real – there was only one reason people flocked to see this film in 1953 and there’s probably only one major reason that people would want to see it today – Monroe.  Yet, it’s worth six or eight viewings because of what it can show us about certain properties and concepts of the cinema.  Let’s look at the fifty random points and see what we have.



First Random Point: The pictures below come from two sources –the first is a shot (taken with my ancient cell phone, of an old disc of Niagra playing in my battered old portable DVD player) of Monroe in an early scene in the film.  The other two are images that popped up upon my putting the phrase ‘cheating wife’ into the search engine.



In the scene in question the character, Rose, is alone in the motel cabin she’s sharing with her frustrated, incompetent loser husband Loomis (played by Joseph Cotten).  She smokes a butt and daydreams of her man on the side.   In good noir style the lovebirds are planning to knock the husband off and split to Chicago on a bus. When she hears the key turn in the cabin’s lock she quickly puts out the cigarette and pretends to be asleep.  Obviously she doesn’t want George to know she’s been up, fantasizing about her man. 


No cell phones back then.  In fact, there’s not even a landline phone in the room. This was before the time when it was common for every room to have a phone.   Had there been a landline we can easily imagine her quickly whispering goodbye and hanging up.  Had it been the age of cell phones we can easily say Marilyn’s behavior is interchangeable with the other two women in the pics below. 



 You say, So what?  Just this – older films can bring into very sharp focus the fact that people don’t change, only their toys change.





Second Random Point:  I don’t know much about Henry Hathaway or his pictures but he seems to have been a very competent studio system director with a vast filmography – obviously an efficient, workmanlike man at the helm.  Niagra, as we know, has absolutely no pretensions about being art or a great example of the film aesthetic.  It’s meant to be strictly entertainment, nothing more.  (If you disagree simply look at the three posters below.)  And this is fine, but we still wonder what Antonioni or Malick would have done with Niagra Falls or with that bell tower!  Or the bells themselves!
Hathaway has his cinematographer Joseph MacDonald employ an entirely passive and unobtrusive camera for most of the picture – it simply makes a faithful recording of the events unfolding in front of it.  There’s almost nothing to alert us to the specialness, to the uniqueness, of the cinema – almost.  Three small exceptions come to mind, which we’ll look at in a minute, but it’s also worth pointing out the heavy amount of stock footage used throughout the film, mostly of the falls and the river and most especially in the final scenes of Polly and Loomis in the boat about to go over the edge.  It might be because I’m spoiled, looking on with the eyes of a much later generation, but the stock doesn’t seem to mix especially well with the actors.  (And I don’t really know that stock has ever done so, ever.)


In the scene where Polly lies down to take a nap in Cabin B, after the innkeeper has moved the Cutler’s things there, we finally get a little camera work.  After she lies down to take a nap the camera wanders over to a window and looks through it to pick up Loomis lurking around outside.  This occurs more than halfway through the film and it’s the first time anything comes between the lens and the object of its focus. 

In the scene where Loomis is about to learn he’s locked in the bell tower with Rose’s dead body overnight, the camera observes the main entrance door from the outside, with Loomis on the other side of it, and after it does so for a moment it suddenly moves in quickly, on a track, in an Ophuls like forward sweep.  This is eye catching because nothing even remotely like it has happened before. 

Finally – there’s a scene just before the climax where Loomis steals the boat from the old man at the dock.  He makes the horn in the car that’s a little ways back from the dock blare uncontrollably to distract the old guy, who runs over to investigate.  While the man runs forward, towards the observing camera, Loomis runs offscreen to the right, disappears from view, then enters frame again from the left at a great distance, on the dock by the boat.  Again, nothing like this examination of motion has come before. 

Obviously nobody has the time to acquire, say, ten or twelve of Henry Hathaway’s other films, some of his westerns or war films, to see if he was allowed to cut loose with the direction in them a little more than he was here, but what an interesting project that would be.  










Third Random Point.  Whose point of view is this film told from?  Here I’m not talking camera angles – the camera throughout is wholly objective – but rather which character is “telling” us the story.  A nice encapsulation of POV as I mean it now can be found at this link:






And a quote from the link:



“However, there is another form of point of view in storytelling — the point of view from which we see the character’s story. All films and television shows present their stories from a certain point of view, and if that changes, it can completely alter the story — or at least how the audience feels about a character or situation.”



So, keeping this in mind, I repeat the question – From whose point of view is this film told?  It begins with a voiceover from George Loomis, which on a first viewing might lead us to think that the POV is his, but that’s obviously not the case.  It’s not Rose’s either, especially not since she dies a full 23 minutes before the picture is over.  Polly’s?  It can’t be – too much of the action deals with things she can’t know or see till after the fact. 



I think the truth is, there is no concrete POV, which is one of the reasons why the film is ultimately less than satisfying.  We’re so conditioned, as viewers, to assume the point of view of just one character or, if the POV switches around, to at least know whose POV the narrative structure is assuming at any given moment.



I’m reminded of three novels that make a similar mistake, though admittedly in not quite as grand a scope.  Mrs. Bridge only leaves India Bridge’s point of view once, in a quick little scene, but it constitutes a glaring lapse.  In Fools Die the shift might actually work but Puzo simply cannot write from the consciousness of a woman, and in The Last Detail Ponicsan probably just couldn’t come up with a tidy way of ending the book with Buddusky’s quick and sudden death.



TBC 




The Thomas Crown Affair

Excerpted from the forthcoming FIRE ON SCREEN, copyright 2015 by Peter Quinones, all rights reserved.  *Note* This material is copyrighted and my lawyer is a junkyard dog.




Nineteen sixty eight was not a peaceful year in the United States.  Riots and protests over Vietnam and the state of racial relations; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King; the spectacle of the Chicago police pounding on demonstrators at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago; all these things contributed to the deep social unrest felt throughout the land.  And yet one would never know any of this from a viewing of The Thomas Crown Affair, Norman Jewison’s film released in that year and meant to take place in the contemporary world.  Why is that the case?  

I believe it is because the real concerns of the film are selfhood, freedom, and personal identity – that is, metaphysical issues and not social ones.  At one point Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) is asked, “What do you have to worry about?”  His answer – “Who I want to be tomorrow” – is instructive.  It implies, first, that he has the power to control what person he wishes to be and, second, that he changes this identity frequently.In this paper I would like to explore these implications by looking at Crown himself and his relationships with other characters in the picture.

            This is a remarkable work - not only thematically but cinematically as well.  Jewison’s stewardship, a team of editors led by Hal Ashby, cinematography by Haskell Wexler, and a varied score made up of all different kinds of music, all combine to give the picture an exciting feel.  Indeed, the glitz and style are potentially overwhelming.  Even a respected critic such as Roger Ebert essentially judged the picture to be all style and no substance. 


         In her great essay Notes on “Camp” Susan Sontag quotes Jean Genet (“the only criterion of an act is its elegance”) and Oscar Wilde (“in matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style”).  I have a tremendous amount of sympathy with this general point of view, which probably accounts for a lot of my enthusiastic appreciation of The Thomas Crown Affair.  However, the film can very easily be mistaken for a delectable, gorgeous portion of fluffy nothing – but eventually it reveals itself to be a remarkably profound examination of important philosophical issues. 
Excerpted from the forthcoming FIRE ON SCREEN, copyright 2015 by Peter Quinones, all rights reserved. 



Othello - CBC Production




        If I understand Othello correctly the viewer is supposed to be enveloped in a sense of suffocation, a feeling of being smothered, as Iago’s box closes around the others, capturing them.  That doesn’t happen in this production at all, and one of the reasons it doesn’t is that the production is so beautiful.  The sets, the costumes, the cinematography, all of it – it’s excellent, even breathtaking, to the point of distraction.  (Compare the sense of asphyxiation in Trevor Nunn’s film with Ian McKellen and Willard White and the BBC film with Bob Hoskins and Anthony Hopkins – in those we feel really choked.) 


          I’m a firm believer that the “style over substance” type of aesthetic can go a long way, and justify a lot, but it usually can’t go all the way and justify everything.  The true stars of this production are the costume designer Debra Hanson; the cinematographer Glen Keenan; the production designer Callum Maclachlan; and even the composer of the haunting theme, Philip J. Bennett.  So – what of everything else?


          I understand the necessity of time limitations in a television adaptation of Shakespeare, and I understand Orson Welles edited this work enormously also, but that isn’t justification.  Chopping this play to two hours from its true three and a half is too much.  It turns the play into Shakespeare for adolescents.  Too many key speeches and scenes have to go.  In particular the bawdy jesting between Iago and Desdemona as they leave the ship cannot be hacked off, as it gives too much insight into both of those critical characters.  The cuts hurt.


          Too: showing the corpses at the very start, and then flashing back, is a mistake.  (It was a mistake when Welles did it as well; it will always be a mistake.)  I can’t get behind this kind of re-writing of Shakespeare in any way, shape, or form.  And this isn’t the only way Zaib Shaikh re-writes.  He gives Roderigo the line “…this Muslim” (meaning Othello) at one point, which Shakespeare certainly didn’t write.  The point is reinforced by having Othello exchange his necklace (a star and crescent) with Desdemona for hers (a cross) at the beginning, when they’re married.  I don’t see anything wrong with the visual message of the necklaces, but again, re-writing the Bard, putting in words he didn’t write?  A no no!  Show, don’t tell.


          The camera here is relatively bland.  What about the acting?  Christine Horne as Desdemona and Peter Donaldson as her father are sensational; I’ve not seen earnest, wholesome goodness just ooze out of Desdemona like this before.  In the thankless role of Bianca Nazneen Contractor isn’t bad, and Ryan Hollyman looks like a great Roderigo.  No one else is a Shakespearean heavyweight, to say the least.  Compare Frank Finlay’s “Are you mad?” in the final scene to Matthew DeSlippe’s here and you’ll know most of what you need to know. 



          And yet, in spite of all these complaints, this film is aesthetically splendacious, reason enough for me to recommend it to anyone.  

John D. MacDonald: One Fearful Yellow Eye




Here McGee travels to Chicago in winter and takes on Nazis, Abstract Expressionism, bad acid trips, and a career criminal who turns out to be no match for the real heavies.  There’s also a wicked, funny parody of the sculptor George Segal.  On the downside, the novel continues the trend of almost unbearable nastiness and inhumanity to one’s fellow men and women.


Here is my usual McGee blueprint rundown:


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. Glory Doyle refers herself; four years earlier, McGee found her in serious distress on the beach in Florida and nursed her back to life.  This is a recurring situation in the McGees; Skeeter in The Quick Red Fox is another example.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.   What a cast it is in this novel!  Glory; Heid; Susan; Anna; Janice Stanyard; Gretchen;  and perhaps the most memorable of all, the sexually frustrated housewife Mildred Shottlehauster. 


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  N/A here.




THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present. Fortner Geis’ many indiscretions are the cause of so much grief, and make him an easy target for the blackmailers.



“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  At one point McGee thinks about Heidi “Keep this one.  It’ll keep well.  It has one hell of a shelf life.”  But then:
        “We’d better say good-bye here, Travis.”
        I tried to pull her into my arms but she begged and demanded and I gave up.  “Then answer the question,” I said.  “Why?”
        “Because I have to have my own life.”


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going. 
        “Yet in our times the thick wad of credit cards is a cachet of respectability, something more useful to me than any questionable convenience.  When a cop lays upon you the white eye, and you stand there hunting for a driver’s license as identification, and he watches you fumble through AmEx, Diners, Carte Blanche, Air Travel, Sheraton, Shell, Gulf, Phillips, Standard, Avis and Texaco before you find it, he is reassured.”


THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. 
        “In one lifetime how many times can it be like that, be a ceremony that becomes so unrelated to the flesh that I had the feeling I felt disembodied in the night sky, halfway between sea and stars, looking down upon a tiny cutaway cottage, at two figures there in the theater of moonlight caught in a slow unending dance to the doubled hearted, a counterpoint in offstage drums.  But there is a time to fall out of the sky, and a fall from that height makes long moments of half-light, of knowing and not knowing, of being and dying.”














John D. MacDonald: Bright Orange for the Shroud



Bright Orange for the Shroud, like Darker Than Amber after it, is really ramping up the level of evil that McGee confronts.  Here, Stebber’s organized gang uses sex and marriage to clean marks out of their life savings; in addition, while many in the gang get their just desserts, Calvin Stebber and Debra Brown, two of the biggest offenders, get away.  Boone Waxwell is more a less a recycling of Junior Allen from The Deep Blue Good-By.  With Debra Brown MacDonald both reinforces a type of female he has employed in past novels (Lysa Dean from The Quick Red Fox, for one) and will explore further in the future. 


Here is my usual McGee blueprint rundown:


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. Arthur Wilkinson “refers” himself by returning to Lauderdale and walking onto McGee’s houseboat.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.   Chookie McCall returns; Wilma Verner (instrumental in the action but never seen in the novel); Vivian Watts; Leafy; Cindy Ingefeldt; Debra Brown.  All complex and memorable!


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  The important group scene happens ‘offstage’, about a year before the events of the novel; Arthur Wilkinson was part of a partying group, as was McGee, when Wilma Verner picked him off.




THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present. Calvin Stebber and Wilma Verner have been at it for fifteen years.



“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  McGee is not really involved with Debra Brown throughout the novel, and he stomps her with a serious rejection in the closing pages.  Admittedly this is not quite in this category!


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.  One example: “Forty million more Americans than we had in 1950.  If one person in fifty has a tendency towards murderous violence, then we’ve got eight hundred thousand more of them now.”



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. One example: “The billions upon billions of lives which have come and gone, and that small fraction now walking the world, came of this life-pulse, and to deny it dignity would be to diminish the blood and need and purpose of the race, make us all bawdy clowns, thrusting and bumping away in a ludicrous heat, shamed by our own instinct.”











John D. MacDonald: Darker Than Amber



As in the previous A Deadly Shade of Gold, MacDonald keeps the outrageousness at fever pitch here.  This is the first novel in which Meyer, the economist, takes an active role in helping Travis McGee with a case (though he does appear in previous novels, he doesn’t much participate).  I’m a little surprised at the way McGee and Meyer throw words like “bitch” and “wench” around here, and McGee kills a man (Griff) and leaves the body buried face down in sand, not telling anyone the details.  The severity of the crimes the prostitution ring rings up – fourteen dead – lends this novel a somewhat more lurid atmosphere than the previous McGees.  And this is the first novel in which McGee comments on race relations.

ADDENDUM: I am out of order!  Bright Orange for the Shroud is actually the sixth novel in the series, so I will get to that next; anything mistaken in the above should be adjusted accordingly.  My apologies.

Here is my usual McGee blueprint rundown:


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. None here; McGee and Meyer stumble onto the case on their own in a right place, right time kind of way.  However, an old client of McGee’s, Jake Karlo, ‘refers’ Merrimay into the case.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.  Vangie; Noreen; Del; Merrimay; and there are several excellent minor portraits as well. 


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  The closest thing to this here is the cruise aboard the Mona D. 




THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.  Here the greed is particularly ugly and widespread – fourteen Johns murdered by the prostitution gang.



“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  It’s totally false, and McGee means to set Del up from the beginning and hand her over to the cops, but he consistently leads her on in this manner, for example “It will be four or five days before I can wind up a few things hanging fire.  There’ll be all the time in the world to get acquainted then, Del.


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one: McGee tells us of Meyer poking fun at Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Robert Gover’s The One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding: “He had been inventing a parody of Ginsberg, entitled “Snarl,” making it up as he went along, and he had also made up a monologue of a Barnard girl trying to instill the concept of social significance into the mind of the white slaver who was flying her to Iraq, and he titled that one “The Two Dollar Misunderstanding.””



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:  When McGee sees Vangie’s dead body he recalls a poem on death by W.H. Auden, a wry meditation that he deems most appropriate to the situation.





John D. MacDonald: A Deadly Shade of Gold

This wild, outrageous novel blasts forth from the page to rush out and meet life head on; its commentary and opinions on myriad subjects hold absolutely nothing back.  This major – this major American novel – can get you into trouble if you borrow its viewpoints liberally.  What do I mean by that?  Well, I posted Travis McGee’s disapproving remarks about Ernest Hemingway verbatim from this novel in a sycophantic Facebook group about Papa and was booted out immediately! 



I pray to the idols that somebody, somewhere, somehow, has the time and inclination to write a significant essay length study of this novel.  It is a remarkable work of fiction in every sense of the term.

Here is my usual McGee blueprint rundown:


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. Sam Taggart comes to Travis McGee himself, in person.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.  Almost too many to mention – Nora; Shaja; Betty; Felicia; Almah; Junebug; Connie Melgar; Dru.  And all of them get a pretty exhaustive analysis and workout from MacDonald.  Elsewhere on this blog I have a 4100 word blip about the women in the first four Travis McGee novels – this one could easily sustain double that, and more.


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  Two – the one at Menterez’s house, where Travis kills the dog Brujo, and the one at Tomberlin’s where he kills Dru.


THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.  What everybody wants – the gold statues.





“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  Not quite the exact scenario, however:
“Are you going to suggest that we might as well have the game as well as the name?”
“It would be normal to think about it, Connie.  You are pretty spectacular, and you know it.  But I don’t think it is a very good idea.”
“That is what I was going to tell you.  If you suggested it.”


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one: “The bell ringers and flag fondlers have been busy peddling their notion that to make America strong, we must march in close and obedient ranks, to the sound of their little tin-whistle.”



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:  “Ninety nine percent of the tings that ninety nine percent of the people do are entirely predictable, when you have a few lead facts.”